(A series of programs, presented by the Mayor's office, City of Bluffton, for the general public at the Bluffton/Wells County Public Library in 1998, included this presentation by James Foster, Wells County Historical Society member, in the section titled "Bygone Bluffton". Following are excerpts from his presentation. The presentation was titled "Backwoods Bluffton".)


Backwoods Bluffton

There once was a Bluffton that is literally gone now, disappeared without a trace, except for some dusty old photographs tucked away in the Museum, and a few descriptions left us in crumbling books by the original pioneers.

The Bluffton we are familiar with is the second Bluffton, the one that was built, for the most part, after the railroad was established here in about 1870, and particularly after the oil boom of the 1890's brought its unprecedented prosperity to the community. The Backwoods Bluffton of mud streets, shanties, log cabins, and meagerly outfitted little lean-to shops, the Bluffton of stage coaches, ox-teams, one-room schools, and the ever-present malaria -- all that is gone. The Bluffton of Greek Revival architecture, of cows and pigs roaming the streets freely, of privies and water wells and chicken coops in every back yard -- that Bluffton has disappeared forever. But perhaps the few reminders of that time that we can resurrect will help us to understand the character of the city that we inhabit today.

The little village of Bluffton was located in a place so swampy, overgrown, remote, and malarial that it was among the very last to be settled in the state of Indiana.

The Studabaker family must be credited with the founding and early survival of the settlement, even though today there isn't a single street or alleyway in town that bears their name. Only a small stone tablet high on the facade of a building on north Main Street today serves to memorialize John Studabaker, who was probably the greatest entrepreneur ever seen in these parts.

John Studabaker's father, Abraham, journeyed to the Wells County area in 1833 from Greenville, Ohio, with the intention of scouting out likely locations along the Wabash river for farms and town sites upon which to settle some of his young sons. One of the tracts he purchased was the one upon which Bluffton was laid out in 1838, after various inducements had been offered to the newly-formed county, including the townsite itself and cash for the empty county treasury to finance construction of the first courthouse.

Young John, age twenty, travelled from Greenville that same year with an ox-team, bringing to the infant village of Bluffton a wagon-load of staple goods with which to equip its first general store. Out of the land donated by his father to the county, two "choice lots" had been reserved for John, and he now owned land on the periphery of the town as well, which would allow him to expand his business interests as the little village grew in size and importance.

In the meantime work had begun on the county's first courthouse, a hewn-log, two-story structure located about midway between Wabash and Market streets on the west side of Main. It was 18 by 24 feet and had clapboards nailed onto its exterior. The first jail, also two-stories and of about the same size as the courthouse, was located approximately at the southwest corner of Main and Market, where the present Courthose Plaza now is. It, too, was constructed of hewn logs.

John Studabaker's little log and clapboard store was built on the northwest corner of Market and Main streets. John had contrived to be named the local agent for the American Fur Company, and most of his early business consisted of bartering his stock of staple goods for coonskins, beaver pelts, and other furs. His first customers were local Indians and white settlers who infrequently struggled in to the county seat to conduct their simple business affairs.

Not far along the dirt path that was called Market Street, and separated from Studabaker's store by thick underbrush and trees, was Bowen Hale's little log cabin. Hale was the county clerk, and he too, dealt in furs and staple goods, and whiskey as well. The two men cooperated in clearing the thick tangle of brush from the street. Both probably boarded at the log tavern kept by Almon Case on the southeast corner of Main and Market.

These four or five crude structures, separated from one another by a tangle of saplings, brush, and huge trees and connected only by vague trails called streets, constituted the entire village of Bluffton in its first year or so. But the place was growing. Each month saw more ox teams laboring up the steeep bank of the river, or crashing through the thickets on the south side of the hamlet, making for Studabaker's general store or Hale's outpost, or perhaps stopping at Case's tavern for a bit of refreshment. Some were on their way to far-distant tracts in the county, where the back-breaking task of clearing their land awaited them. These had stopped by to replenish their provisions before moving on. But others were in Bluffton to settle, and those big rigs were soon standing on densely wooded town lots, where the sounds of axes and cross-cut saws signified that a few more new residents had set about building shelters for their families, or shops in which to sell their wares or their services to the growing number of farmers.

Within only a couple of years of its founding in 1838 as the county seat, Bluffton had grown to a population of 225. A Methodist congregation was organized in November 1838 and a United Brethren group met at the little log school house, which was located where Scott Street now crosses Elm, on the southwest corner. The schoolhouse had a huge fireplace along one wall with a stick chimney and clay backwall. This structure was later replaced with a brick school which served until the first Central School building was erected in 1868, by which time Bluffton's population had grown to around a thousand.

The isolation of the place was almost unbelievable in its earliest days, and there were few of the amenities of life here to relieve the tedium. Books were a rarity and were generally of a religious or an instructional nature. Bibles, volumes of sermons, treatises on practical geometry, and dog-eared spellers and primers were the usual printed fare. Bookstores were non-existent, and people passed around from hand-to-hand the few books they had brought with them from Ohio and Pennsylvania and all the other places through which they had passed on their way here. The first weekly newspapers began to appear in 1847 and were eagerly read, but as business ventures they often failed due to the unavailability of ready cash for such luxeries. Firelight and candlelight were the only means of illumination, and few spent the evening hours reading, for the old maxim "early to bed and early to rise" was very much in vogue. Hymn singing and church attendance were about the extent of recreational and social life for many of Bluffton's first residents.

There were always some, of course, who managed to be lighthearted no matter where they were. The merry sound of a fiddle or two and the clumping of muddy boots on a puncheon floor issued from their cabins on holidays. On ordinary evenings they had singing contests, story-tellings, spelling bees, or dramatic recitations to beguile them when they weren't too tired from work. Even a lyceum, or debating society, fluorished for a while in the late 1840's.

Unfortunaely, too, there were always excesses to deal with. Drunkenness and gambling were the scourge of backwoods communities, and Bluffton was certainly no exception. Veiled hints survived into the late nineteenth century concerning the problem, even though by that time the tendency was to paint a rosy picture of the Old Settlers and to gloss over any stories that might have put them in a bad light. We do know that a very large gathering of settlers in town, at the first sale of town lots in June of 1838, was chracterized by general intoxication. In August of the next year the grand jury indicted several "prominent citizens" for supplying whiskey to the Indians and for allowing gambling to take place in the tavern and in the"grocery stores." It is difficult to see how these "prominent citizens" could have been anyone other than John Studabaker, Almon Case, and Bowen Hale. It is interesting to note that Studabaker was a devout Methodist teetotaler and was, late in life, a stalwart supporter of the local Prohibition Party.

Saloons came to be an integral part of commercial life in the village, no matter how reviled they were by local ministers. Whiskey was customarily a barter item in backwoods communities, and in addition there was always a sizeable element in every population that claimed potent medicinal properties for alcohol.

By the time of the oil boom inthe 1890's, when Bluffton's population had grown to around 4500, there were 16 saloons in town -- eight of them within a radius of two blocks from the courthouse. Some of them had a bad reputation for fighting and gambling, and all were regularly berated by the local newspapers.

The use of tobacco was extremely widespread in pioneer times , too. Both men and women were addicted to it in various forms. Stogies, so-called after the Conestoga wagon, and cheroots were popular cigars among the menfolk, and pipes were smoked by all ages and both sexes, including even venerable grandmothers. Again, medicinal reasons were often cited: The ague, or malaria, was thought by many to be prevented by the regular use of tobacco. Chewing tobacco was customarily the province of men, who spewed their juice everywhere, to the consternation of women in hoopskirts who had to make their way through crowds of idlers when out shopping. Snuff was popular among both sexes, particularly the older generation. The churches railed against the tobacco habit, too, and met with eventual success where women were concerned, but smoking and chewing continued among the male population long after the backwoods period was over.

All during the 1840's local merchants were aware that only 25 miles to the north the Wabash and Erie Canal was bringing real prosperity to Fort Wayne and the other towns that lay along its route. It was true that Bluffton was continuing to grow, and as more and more farmers settled in outlying areas, merchants like Studabaker had to pull down their old log shops and put up larger frame buildings to accomodate their increased business. But there was an even greater potential here than met the eye. If some way could be found to get the timber, hogs, and grain products of Wells County to Fort Wayne's markets easily and inexpensively, local farmers would have more money than ever to spend in the stores of Bluffton. Many perceptive businessmen, and especially John Studabaker, knew that among the general population there was an unfulfilled hunger for finer material goods.

Those intervening 25 miles, however, were thickly forested and swampy. Ox teams made their journey on an irregular basis and returned from Fort Wayne's warehouses with only the bare necessities, and these journeys were difficult and expensive. It was actually easier to make the trip to Cincinnati for supplies, even though the distance was much greater. Obviously what was neede was a railroad connection to Fort Wayne, and that possibility was talked about as early as 1841, although nothing came of it at that time. In 1849, Studabaker and a Muncie businessman, David Haines, chartered "The Fort Wayne and Southern Railroad," with a view of connecting Fort Wayne, Bluffton, and Muncie. Preliminary surveying was done, and some right-of-way was purchased in the next few years, but the immense amount of capital required put the project on hold for almost two decades.

Studabaker resorted to a stop-gap measure -- the Fort Wayne and Bluffton Plank Road Company, organized by Studabaker and others, built a wooden road from Bluffton through Ossian to Fort Wayne in 1850 and 1851. It was a toll-way, and the fees charged were fairly expensive, but it represented a vast improvement over the old unimproved trail. For the decade during which it served, before deteriorating under extremely heavy use, it was a real boon to the economy of Bluffton and Wells County. Wagons were now able to make the Fort Wayne trip on a regular basis, carrying huge amounts of Wells County produce to the city and returning laden with goods for the stores of Bluffton. The little village underwent a series of changes, most notable of which was the construction of its first brick buildings, including, of course, a fine new structure for the Studabaker store.

That is not to say that the primative, backwoods character of Bluffton had disappeared or even altered much. Its few sidewalks were made of wood, and were often in disrepair, due to the depredations of rambunctious boys. The streets themselves were dust in the summer and mud nearly all the rest of the time, and here and there tree stumps in the center of the thoroughfare attested to the fact that not long before a dense forest had occupied the spot. Except for the plain, utilitarian brick buildings just mentioned, and the imposing courthouse that had been built in the Greek Revival style in 1845 after the original log structure burned, there was little here to recommend the place. Very few houses or shops were painted, and many showed signs of neglect.

It was not a time during which most of us would have wanted to live. Clouds of flies covered meats and produce in the grocery stores, and rats were much in evidence in the alleys. During the rainy season, clouds of mosquitoes plagued man and beast alike, and there were as yet no ways available to screen them out effectively. Debris, trash, and garbage were thrown into the Wabash river and on its banks, along with the stinking offal from the butcher shops. Sickness was frequent and often untreatable. People did not bathe or even wash much.

In 1856, John Studabaker sold his store to George Arnold, who in turn went on to found his own small business empire here in Bluffton, John Studabaker turned to banking full time, and through the Civil War years kept alive the idea of a railroad connection to Fort Wayne. Finally. after numerous crises, false starts, and near calamities, the line was completed to Bluffton in November, 1869, and on through the county to Muncie in the next couple of years. Remarkable changes followed soon after, due to the prosperity that inevitably followed in the wake of a railroad. New industries located here, primarily connected at first to the huge supply of timber available locally, and new stores were opened and old ones expanded.

Little enterprises typical of backwoods villages began to close up shop. Products previously made on the spot, like hats and harness and tinware and home-made shoes, were replaced by cheaper, factory-made goods brought in on daily freight trains and dispensed from large new stores that were springing up along Market Street, Johnson Street, and Main. The new merchants constructed new filligreed and fancified houses with commodious porches on them. Grassy yards, often fenced with decorative ironwork, enclosing pretty flower beds, began to be seen in all the new additions that were regularly opening up to accomodate the burgeoning population. Log cabins, lean-tos, and unpainted clapboard houses rapidly came to be associated with backwardness and poverty, and were gradually throughout the 70's torn down and replaced with new frame structures. Hygiene, finery, and civility became the order of the day, and Backwoods Bluffton at last disappeared forever. It had become, finally, "Bygone Bluffton."

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